Tuesday, April 5, 2016

We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit . . .

     Don’t you find it at least a bit ironic that we read about “doubting” Thomas on “Low” Sunday?  Does anybody else think we should really include Thomas’ story on Easter, when there are far more people who do not want to believe in attendance?  After my conversations last week, I really think we should reconsider our lectionary readings.  Some of you commented last Sunday or during the week on the time it took for me to make my way to the Parish Hall after the second service.  For those waiting on me, I apologized, but I was stopped by a number of visitors and/or infrequent attenders.
     For those not here last week, I compared life to the NCAA Tournament .  We face choices much like teams face competitors in a bracket.  How we choose impacts our lives.  God, of course, offers us that opportunity to share in the glory of a champion, well, THE Champion—Jesus Christ.  To be sure, the consequences of bad and sinful choices may still play out in our lives, but the guarantee is that we all make the winner’s celebration in the end, even if we are upset in the early rounds.  Don’t laugh.  It worked.  And that’s what happens sometimes when we trust that the Holy Spirit will show up and say what needs to be said.
     Clearly, way more was said than what came out of my mouth.  I had people stop me and talk with me about the importance of the historicity of the Cross and Resurrection and Ascension.  I had people stop and talk with me about how their situations were irredeemable.  I had people even stop me, thank me for inviting them to join us in this faith walk at Advent, and the proceed to explain to me how they were not saints like the people who attend here!  It’s ok to laugh.  I did.  I even pointed out that the chief hypocrite was the shepherd of this herd of cats, but they were having none of it.
     In truth I only had 8 or 9 such conversations after church last week.  But each of the conversations lumped easily into one of those three categories, if you will.  One thread, though, was common among them all.  When I asked why they had chosen to come to church at Church of the Advent to remember and celebrate this event of which they do not yet feel a part, the answers came back to you.  So and so is always talking about your sermons.  I wanted to see if you could make Easter real.  So and so isn’t like all those other Christians I read about.  She lives in the real world and faces real problems.  One was kind enough to share the problems of a parishioner.  But she never gives up.  She always faces whatever life chucks at her.  I want to know why?  I even got a couple well, I have to on Easter and Christmas.  If I don’t, there’s real hell to pay with my parents, Father. 
     Don’t waste your time trying to figure out which friend or family member stopped me and who said what.  Given the day, I doubt I would remember their faces, except the poor chap who thought you guys were saints and was shocked at my guffaw.  And some conversations started once I made it into the Parish Hall, so it is likely that I am conflating a dozen or more discussions.  But the conversations did make me realize something.  I need to remind you the truth of our reading from Acts this morning.  Turn there in your Order of Worship, if you want to follow along.  We will take for granted this morning that none of us present are doubting Thomases, at least in the way of Thomas the Apostle.
     Those of us who pay close attention to our readings might be surprised to learn that, although we are only in chapter 5 of the book of Acts, this is the third time the Apostles have been arrested and the second time they have been brought before the Sanhedrin, the court that found Jesus guilty and took Him to Pilate demanding His death.  Our reading today takes place after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, so we jump ahead in the story about 8 or 9 weeks.  To catch you up, Jesus has appeared repeatedly, commissioned the disciples and Apostles, and ascended into heaven.  Peter and John have healed the man on the Temple steps in the Name of Jesus.  That event was, of course, theologically significant in the ANE.  God’s fortress was His Temple in His city.  If Jesus was not His Son, Peter and John would never have been able to heal in His Name on the threshold of Yahweh’s Temple.  It’s horrible logic, to be sure.  Many in Israel thought that God had to protect Jerusalem and His Temple before the armies showed up to take Israel into Exile.  They were wrong.  God had instructed them over the centuries that the Temple was for them, not Him.  So here is Peter and John healing a man right under the nose of God!
     We can well imagine the conversations.  Some likely questioned their decision to have Jesus killed.  Names were powerful in the ANE.  To name something was to have power over it, to control it.  For Peter and John to be able to invoke Jesus’ name for healing was of incredible importance.  Maybe the rumors of the Resurrection were true?  Maybe the Temple priests were wrong and this ragtag bunch of disciples really understood God’s plan of salvation history?  The other questions would have likely dealt with the priests’ inability to heal the man in question.  Can you imagine how you all would respond to me if, day after day, week after week, you had to step over a beggar on your way into church.  I would likely tell you the poor soul had the right to seek alms from the faithful.  Then, sometime later, a couple of you heal that beggar in God’s Name.  How many would wonder why I had not tried to heal the beggar in God’s Name?  Worse.  What if I had tried and failed?  My guess is that more than a few of us would wonder whether we needed a new priest.  That is the situation created by Peter and John.  And the Sanhedrin is, understandably, none too pleased.
     The Sanhedrin had them dragged before them and strictly ordered them, as our translators put it this morning, not to teach and preach in this name.  The Apostles do not listen, as you can imagine, and are arrested again.  That time, though, God rescues them from the jail.  This time, though, God lets them face the accusers who just a few weeks ago put His Son to death.  How would you expect Peter and John to respond?  How would you respond?  Remember, during the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, just a few weeks ago, all the men deserted their Lord!  Poor Peter even denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus told him he would, before he leaves the scene weeping bitterly at his failure.  I could well imagine Peter trembling with fear.  No doubt many of us would, too.  But look at how the Apostles answer the Sanhedrin.  We must obey God rather than human authorityThe God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.  God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.  Can you imagine?  What could cause Peter to go from denying Jesus in the face of that imposing servant girl to evangelizing the entirety of the Sanhedrin?  How do you explain it?  A plot to take over the Roman Empire and enjoy the “good life of power”?  Really, we think these guys are that smart and that forward thinking?  They get confused about yeast and feeding people and how greatness is assessed by God, when God is incarnate among them, but now they are able to grasp the intricacies of the Empire and plot its overthrow three centuries later?  Of course not!  They have seen the risen Jesus!  They have eaten with the risen Jesus!  They have had the Scriptures opened in their minds so that they understand the plan of salvation history and the central role that Jesus plays in that plan!  They have seen Jesus ascend to be with the Father again!  And they have witnessed and experienced the coming of the Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit!  Nothing is as it was that dark evening and darker Friday.  Everything has changed because Jesus has been raised from the dead!  They know that now.  They understand that nothing can take them from the Father’s hand.  They know there is no one to fear because they belong to God.
     We are witnesses to these things.  Just like those hauled before the Sanhedrin in our readings this morning, you and I are witnesses to these things.  Oh, I understand that, unless we are given mystical visions, most of us must depend on the faith blessed by our Lord during His confrontation with Thomas.  But we have seen and we have come to believe, have we not?  Maybe some of us have seen miracles in our own lives that rival the parting of the Red Sea or the raising of the dead.  Maybe some of us have experienced provision in the face of privation in such a way that we know, we absolutely know, that God gives us each day our daily bread.  Maybe some of us have experienced that Peace that passes all understanding in the midst of extreme danger, extreme hurt, or extreme loneliness.  Maybe some of us, like Mary last week, have heard His voice calling us.  Whatever the reasons, we have heard, we have seen, and we believe!  More importantly, we are witnesses to these things!
     The common thread running through my conversations with visitors last week, brothers and sisters, is that we are not doing a very good job of witnessing.  It is not only a problem that plagues us at Advent but also the wider Church.  You laughed a few moments ago because visitors thought you were saints.  If they knew us, if they truly knew us and who we are, they would understand that we are not saints of our own making, nor would they feel out of place coming before our Lord in this place to give Him thanks and praise.  We are real sinners who have been redeemed—you all especially because now you even come to church on Low Sunday!  We have all done bad things.  We have all done horrible things.  All of us still have secret sins we dare not share because we do try to keep up appearances.  Ironically, in pretending to be other than who we are, we give the impression that we are not like those in our families, in our places of employment, in our clubs and social gatherings, or those whom we encounter in our daily life and work.  There is, as the Collect notes today, a disconnect between what we profess by our faith and by how we interact with others in our lives.  We who have an intimate relationship with God, we who know He died even for our secret sins and washed us in His blood, fear that kind of intimacy with others.  We fear witnessing.
     As you have all figured out, I had this idea for a sermon very early in the week.  When I am settled on a sermon by Monday or Tuesday I get nervous.  I still beg God for signs like burning bushes or partings of waters.  Those of you who follow me on Facebook know I hit upon that amazing sign last night.  If I was worried at all about the force of the call I was going to issue in His name on your lives today, He cast that aside.  Last night, while killing time during commercials, I came across one of the saddest commentaries of our time.  The article was about how those under 30 are using MDMA, I think it is called, Molly to create authentic relationships.  Let that sink in for just a second.  According the article, those who value the drug claim it fast forwards, at a ridiculous pace, intimacy and relationships.  But does it really fast forward intimacy?
     All those who visit at your invitation last week are seeking.  They may not know who or what they are seeking, but they are seeking.  Most see “something” in you and want that for themselves, and so they are intrigued.  Maybe they want your unwillingness to give into despair.  Each person is different.  The problem, of course, is that the intimacy that they crave cannot be rushed.  How do we come to trust in God?  How is it that we Low Sunday attenders come to trust in God the way we do?  Is it not, to a large degree, due to His patient re-socialization of each and everyone of us?  We all work differently; we all see the world differently.  Some of us are Type A; some of us are not.  Some of us are very artistic; others of us are incredibly “left-brained.”  Yet we all find ourselves drawn to the same Lord, sharing the same bread and wine, celebrating what He has done for each and every one of us!  Those lessons are not learned overnight.  Those lessons cannot be rushed.  It took Abraham what, twenty-five years to begin to understand the offer of God?  How long did it take David to inherit his crown?  When we first called upon the saving name of Jesus, we were far different than we are today—at least I hope we all are, just as each of those who came before us were different from the men and women they were when they first encountered God!  Hopefully, our encounters with God have shaped us, molded us, transformed us into living saints and witnesses to these things.  We should be as different in our eyes as Peter was in his own eyes this day two thousand years ago.  And we, we should not be surprised by such things.
     What happens when we are baptized?  We die to ourselves, right?  The word for witness in Greek is martyr.  Whatever it is that we sought before we found Jesus, we die to.  If money was our primary focus before we encountered Jesus, we die to money.  If random sexual encounters were our primary focus before we encountered Jesus, we die to those.  If our reputation was the most valuable ting in our lives before we met Jesus, we die to reputation.  Whatever we valued before we met Jesus, whatever had a hold on our lives, we die to it or them when we enter those waters of baptism.
     And what happens on the other side?  We are raised to new life in Christ!  As the BCP puts it, we share in His Resurrection.  I know.  You thought Confirmation class ended many years ago.  You had no idea it should impact your life going forward each and every day.  But daily we die to self so that we can live in Christ, right?  And how do we live for Christ?  What is our charge we give as a congregation to new believers?  We receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim His Resurrection, and share with us in His eternal priesthood.  Is Peter doing anything other than the oath we all take?  True, His sanctification may be faster or slower than yours or mine, but should we be at all surprised that we share in his vocation just as he shares in ours?  Do we not share the same Lord?  The same Baptism?  The same light from the Light, as that Paschal Candle reminds us?
     I know it is frightening.  I know it is scary.  Some of us have carved out different lives.  Some of us are normal Christians when we show up for worship at Advent and super workers or super dads or super moms or super friends or super bridge players or whatever else we think we are when we show up in those places.  Were we to “get real” in these places where we work and play, people might begin to think we are Jesus freaks, holy rollers, or worse.  But Peter reminds us of a teaching in our baptism this morning that we are not alone in our witnessing.  The Holy Spirit witnesses with us.  It is an amazing claim, but ponder its truth.  Once again, what happens right before the congregational exhortation?  The celebrant marks the head of the baptized with the chrism proclaiming the words you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.  These are not just words.  They are a Sacrament, an outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace that we proclaim is within us!  We who have been baptized into His death and His Resurrection are promised by none other than Him that we will receive the Holy Spirit!  We don’t have to worry about the testimony too much, because the Holy Spirit will help us say or do those things necessary to glorify God.  You know this.  You really know this.  And so do those who came because you invited them.  Already within you they see something, they hear something they want for themselves.  They want to know that it, whatever it is, is available to them, that their emptiness can be filled by that which fills you.
     We are witnesses to these things.  Peeking ahead, brothers and sisters, I am a bit worried that you are going to get sick and tired of hearing that exhortation during the rest of the Easter Season.  Hopefully, God will give me ways to repeat it without boring you, but I think it bears repeating.  You and I are hear because someone or someones witnessed to us.  We would do well to remember the faith that is within us and witness to those not yet members, that they, like us, might know He is Lord and share in His eternal glory.  Talk about the ultimate pay it forward!
     One last note, though.  Because you worship here this today that comes so long after Peter’s speech before the Sanhedrin, you might assume all went well.  You might very well expect that the Sanhedrin converted en masse and the Church began to flourish.  To be sure, the Church continued to grow.  We are proof enough of that truth.  But after the warning of a rabbi named Gamaliel, the Sanhedrin has the Apostles flogged.   You heard correctly.  The Apostles are beaten for their faithfulness.  Yet such is the power of God in Christ that even those things meant for evil can be redeemed by Him.  That is the reminder of last week.  We can do everything perfectly, the way God drew it up on the chalkboard for us, and still there is no guarantee that humanity will listen.  We may be mocked, we may be ostracized, we may ridiculed, and in some places, as C and T certainly understand, we may even be killed.  But in the end, He has promised that He shares in our sorrows and our pains even as He offers us a share in His eternal glory.  In the end, whatever is taken from us, we will count as rubbish, unworthy of remembrance, for He will redeem all of us and all our sufferings for His sake, that the world might know He is the Lord and we are His servants!



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